…further adventures in Japan


Fuji from the plane

Having got as far as Tōkyō to take part in the Playable City lab, it would have been a shame to have turned around and gone back home again after only a week. So I didn’t.

What I hadn’t really planned for was my explorations to start with a trip to hospital, but there you go; it’s all good learning.


I learned that there isn’t really a GP equivalent in Japan and so if you’ve caught a lurgy you join all the hundreds of other people being herded around the hospital in an efficient manner. Somewhat bewildering without enough of the language, but with some supplementary pointing, and after being politely relieved of some money, I got some meds and was eventually on my way.

First stop was Hakone, where I’d decided to treat myself to two nights in a ryokan.


ryokan meal


The wikipedia article starts by describing ryokan as “a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner”. Having gazed longingly at the clear blue skies from my hotel room window when I was too ill to go out and play in Tōkyō, in my chats with the ryokan staff we joked that I was a rain god. Yup, you’ve guessed it: I’d planned to do some walking around Hakone and, for the two days I was there, it was pretty miserable weather.

Armed with my kagoul, a sense of humour and slightly inadequate maps, I set off to walk along a well-preserved section of the old Tōkaidō highway that used to be the main route between Kyōto and what is now Tōkyō. My ryokan was close to the Hakone Sekisho (security checkpoint) so I had a look around there first before setting off up the steep wooded slopes along the ancient cobbles.

Hakone Sekisho

old Tōkaidō highway

Pretty mind-boggling to try and imagine what this road was like 400 years ago with volcanoes and earthquakes adding to all the usual human-powered perils.

Apparently, around here is the re-routed section that was built to make the going less steep. No wonder it was travelled by foot and not by wheeled transport…

I only walked a few miles, but was grateful when I reached the amazake chaya serving its cups of warm, sweet, fermented rice drink. The room was dim and full of slightly biting wood smoke from the fire, but check out the size of that brass kettle between the table and the counter in the background for a sense of how this place has traditionally provided a welcome haven for the travellers that stop off here!

amazake chaya

From the tea house I opted to make use of my Hakone Free Pass and take the white-knuckle roller coaster bus ride over to Hanone Yumoto and then the Tozan Railway and Cable Car (funicular railway) up into the mountains. Unfortunately the Hakone Ropeway (cable car) wasn’t operating by the time I got to Sounzan station, so I retraced my steps back to Yumoto through the drizzle and failing light and then braved the bus once again to return to the ryokan.

The next day was even wetter, but I still had the Free Pass and I was determined to use it so I attacked the mountains from the other direction: taking a ferry boat mocked up as a replica HMS Victory across the lake and then the Ropeway up to Ōwakudani.


Ashinoko Victory ferry


Wikipedia informs me the name Ōwakudani (大涌谷) literally means “Great Boiling Valley”, which makes perfect sense: steam rises from countless fumaroles as you reach the upper slopes.

Ōwakudani (Great Boiling Valley)

The combined effect of the vents, the strongly sulphurous smell, the scree slopes and the Geomuseum finally brought home to me how volatile the landscape around here is.

I returned to the ryokan, collected my bags and headed off to a friend’s house and significantly more snuggly surroundings …even if I did have to contend with bears and interlopers in my bed.

Bear Hunt oyasumi

A few days later my JR Pass kicked in, so it was time to hit the road shinkansen.

I arrived in Kyōto around lunchtime along with a light snowfall and a reminder that it was indeed December. I’d originally planned to hire a bike, but opted for a walking instead. I popped in on the garden at Konchi-in as the shadows were lengthening and climbed the sanmon gate of Nanzen-ji as golden hour illuminated a pretty good view of the city.



That afternoon I was mostly fixated by the many amazing rooflines I encountered, so the taking of photos happily continued as dusk fell and I started to make my way down Tetsugaku-no-michi (The Philosopher’s Path), arriving at Ginkaku-ji well after dark when everything was shut.



Ginkaku-ji Ginkaku-ji

The next day was mostly about trains; travelling the 460-or-so miles between Kyōto and Kumamoto, almost – but not entirely – successfully managing a series of very tight transfer windows at 4 or 5 busy shinkansen stations.

shinkansen view


I stopped off en route to meet up with a producer at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media who gave me a very interesting tour of the building and the various activities going on there, followed by a slap-up sushi lunch and then a bike to go off exploring with for an hour or so. I was so ready for that bike ride after having been sat on trains since early morning!

My somewhat circuitous route took me over to Ruriko-ji where I had a super quick look at the pagoda and then sprinted back in order to be in time to catch a few more trains.


Ruriko-ji Ruriko-ji

After a minor embarkation error and a bit of on-the-fly emergency plan B-ing, I eventually made it to Kumamoto, in position and ready to make the most of the following few days staying with a friend and her family on the outskirts of the city.

Daylight hours included being taught how to play shogi, making splatty sweets and establishing the level of mime required to communicate (we don’t have much language overlap, but it seems to mostly work out okay). After the youngest young ‘un had curled up and been hit several times with a horizontal rolled up newspaper, we set off into the sunset to the village temple…

inaka sunset


…where we were to watch the 6 p.m. ringing of the bell.

…except it turned out that my friend had been at school with the obõsan so we ended up not watching his wife ring the bell but climbing up and giving it some welly [religious technical term] ourselves. I particularly liked the stone system for keeping count of how many times the bell had been rung. The bell was impressively loud and reverberant from that close, so I can well imagine it would be easy to lose count.

We also learned that the 6 a.m. bell ringing had been ceased after complaints from the locals…

kane counting stones

It then turned out that, whilst we’d been ringing the bell, the obõsan had been inside getting changed into more formal attire and we were then allowed to accompany him into the inner part of the main hall where we got to peer at all the ornate carvings and he explained the significance of various things. Again we didn’t have much language overlap, but I probably learned more about Buddhism that evening than I had done in several visits to Kyōto and all the massive temples there.

local temple

The young ‘uns were back at school the next day, so my friend and I joined a class of 5 year olds (almost as loud as a temple bell!) for a miso making session. It involved some very large bowls, some satisfyingly hands-on mixing of squelchy stuff and then punching the resulting mixture into those bags you can see the background, hopefully with no air trapped inside.

making miso

making miso

I couldn’t take much of our miso back on the plane with me, but a lunchbox full is currently quietly fermenting away in the cupboard underneath my kitchen sink. It’s got to do this for the next 3 months or so and then I suppose it’ll either be green and furry or I’ll need to find someone who actually knows what miso’s supposed to taste like to declare whether it’s ready or not!

What with the miso and the amazake, I’m becoming more and more curious about all the different Japanese foodstuffs made from variants of fermented rice. I’m pretty sure there’s a project in there somewhere, but failing that I bet there’s loads of interesting traditional processes to learn about and wonder at.

blue sheets

After the miso punching we had time for a quick look at Kumamoto Castle. Kumamoto was hit by a large earthquake in April and driving through the city had already been a sobering experience seeing all the signs of the damage done: blue tarpaulins on many of the rooftops (as shown in the Google maps screenshot above); gravestones all akimbo; and occasionally an apartment block with a ground floor missing. Well, not missing, just very compressed.

I’d been around Kumamoto-jō on a previous visit, so I had reference points for before and after. Even without these, the large rocks strewn about the place, the collapsed walls and the dishevelled tiles all brought home the power of the quake. They’re still getting aftershocks, so there’s not yet much that can be done in the way of tidying up, though I dread to think how long it will take to try and reassemble everything once they do get started.



On the return of the young ‘uns from school that evening we went for a stroll around the local area.

Kumamoto inaka view

My friend was worried that I would be bored in such a small, quiet place (let’s face it: everywhere’s going to be small and quiet after Tōkyō), but I really enjoyed hearing about the personal stories related to the area, including short-cuts back from school along the bamboo road (don’t tell her mum!).

take no michi

Also more shenanigans on a bike that was way too small for me, but much fun nonetheless!



bike fun

Back on the shinkansen again…

Fascinating watching how the population puddles in the flat areas, right up to the foothills of the mountains, and then how the cloud sneaks down and gathers on the upper slopes almost as if it’s poised ready to take the place of the buildings if given half a chance.

Shinkansen view

Next was a couple of nights staying at the Wasyugama pottery near Okayama.

tunnel kiln

As soon as I’d learned about this place I’d wanted to make sure I got a chance to visit. Next time I’m going to have to make sure I stay for longer.

On arrival I got a quick tour of the workshop and I grilled K on the firing process (there are a couple of videos on YouTube if you’re interested) and how the different decorative effects were achieved. Then we made a dash across the city to the Fukiage Art Museum to look for a power drill.

I very much like the act of shedding your outdoor shoes, stepping up onto a wooden platform and then padding around on immaculately polished floorboards in a pair of slippers. [I’d love to try to recreate a similar process of crossing a threshold and entering into a different frame of mind/body for engaging with art/ideas back here in the UK. I wonder how it would be received…]

Here the light switches were located in distant corners, so we did a lot of our slipper-shuffling in the dark using our phones for light. That and having the place all to ourselves was really rather magical.

Fukiage Art Museum

I didn’t have a plan for Okayama other than to relax and soak up as much knowledge as possible. With my host’s comment that most people came to stay there because it was within day-tripping distance to the island of Naoshima I hit some sort of threshold for people suggesting I should go there, so that’s what I did.

Naoshima is a small island (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) in the Seto Inland Sea that somehow manages to be home to a massive mining operation …and several contemporary art museums and installations.

A late start and a series of extenuated transfer times for trains, ferries and buses meant I had limited time to actually look at the art, so I opted to forgo the big museums and instead hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura. Here empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.

art house bath

Above: the 200 year old Kadoya house

Below: a former dentist’s office

art house dentist

There are 7 locations in all, and entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7, with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet. I’m incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, and the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.

I often find myself working in contexts that have a regeneration agenda attached, so to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well-remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing, raises lots of chewy questions. Is it purely seen as a commercial undertaking? Was it a grass-roots project that just evolved, or was it masterminded and commissioned by someone? How do the locals feel about having their small town overrun by tourists? How has the art-ification of Naoshima improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all)?

What I was hoping to see was signs of art happening in the margins – of a critical mass of activity that helped to attract and support emerging artists with more experimental practices – but I didn’t really see any. That’s not to say it isn’t there, of course, I only saw a tiny amount of one area before the sun started to sink and closing times were reached.

Instead of walking back over the island to the ferry terminal I opted to walk along the coast and admire the sunset before taking the bus back.

Naoshima view

I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art, so the stand-out experience of the whole day for me was a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant and who found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)


It got me thinking about the Playable City lab and how, on an island of flagship museums and many invested art dollars, someone venturing a few steps and offering the exchange of a few sentences was the most profound thing. ありがとうございました、竹下さん。

Back at the pottery I had just enough time to make use of the fruit I had carefully carried from Kumamoto and take my winter solstice yuzu bath.

The following day I upped the ante on my rucksack-slugging journeying and once more set off for multiple train journeys, except this time with rather a lot of fragile handmade ceramics with me.

That evening, in a university art department somewhere towards the west of Tōkyō, I dined on traditional Japanese cuisine such as oden, onigiri, sushi and honey and ginger flavoured KitKats.


I was the guest of an artist/lecturer there and, having met various members of the department and given a presentation about my practice, in the morning we then set off on a mission to explore Tōkyō.

Nakano Broadway

First was our induction into ‘Deep Tōkyō’: Nakano Broadway. This building has evolved into a centre for anime and manga otaku; something neither her nor I are, so we nervously explored different floors and a few of the tiny, crammed shops before escaping back outside into the relative fresh air and serenity of the city.

Seeking an antidote to Deep Tōkyō we headed up, up, up to the 45th storey observatories in the Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku where the weather was on good form, giving us a reasonable view of Fuji-san and strikingly dramatic shafts of sunlight lighting up swathes of the metropolis stretching out endlessly all around us.



We finished up by spending about 3 hours poking around in the wonderful Intermediatheque museum. Photography wasn’t allowed and the website doesn’t give much of an impression of the place, so you’ll have to imagine somewhere that’s a cross between the Pitt Rivers museum and the Lapworth geology museum at the University of Birmingham, with something of the curatorial feel of the V&A.

The highlight for me was the man at the desk at the back of the 2nd floor trying to piece together a jaguar skeleton whilst happily chatting to visitors and challenging people to correctly match the articulating surfaces of a deer’s leg. He said it takes him about 2 weeks to prepare a skeleton and armature – you can see why!

The next day we went to see a group exhibition of some artists who work in metal and then I managed to convince my companion to join me at the Bicycle Culture Center [English language article] by telling her a bit about Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers research project and showing her my photos of the Bloomer Ride.

Bicycle Culture Center

Bicycle Culture Center

By this stage it was Christmas Eve and I relocated back to Yokosuka for more bears and also a second yuzuburo, although this time with more juggling and plastic turtles.

Yuzuyu two

For our Christmas party we took the Japanese’s adopted fried chicken, and added raw octopus, sushi cake and a kind of summer fruits pudding.


sushi cake

Christmas cake

Our special guest of honour seemed to approve, and I have to say I also really enjoyed the blend of familiar and completely alien ingredients to the afternoon! We did however keep to the universal truth of the empty cardboard box being played with as much, if not more, than the present itself.

merii kurisumasu

I flew home a day and a half later.


I’m not really sure how to conclude this blog post – writing it has been a good way to remind myself of everything that happened, but I feel its only just the start of the process of digesting and reflecting upon it all. Maybe check back in with me in a few months’ time to see what is still in technicolour and what has faded?

In the meantime, many, many thanks to everyone who hosted me, taught me, laughed with me, or just took a chance on saying hello.

The photos here are all released under a CC by-nc-sa license, with larger sizes of the originals (and many more) to be found over on Flickr in this album. If you want to skip the Playable City workshop photos, then start about halfway down this page.


Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:


In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:


(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…


As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/albums/72157673973684273

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.


Orrery: a prop for conversations

Having made the Orrery, the next step was to send it out into the world and see where it could take us in terms of conversations and approaching the idea of live-tracking a bit differently.

First it visited Emily Chappell and her dad; then I went for a bike ride with Hannah Nicklin, revisiting some of her triathlon route; and then the Orrery caught up with Tina Tylen and Bumble the dog as they waited for Kajsa to return home. I also spoke about the Orrery at the recent Pedalling Ideas event in Leeds, and conversations there have filtered into the mix as well.

For the exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery I made an audio piece (you can listen to it via the thingy above, or download it via this link), which weaves together some of the themes that came out of all these discussions. It’s kind of a snapshot of what the conversationalists and I have been thinking about recently, looked at through the lens of the Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity project. This part of the process has also been the sort of initial brainstorming phase for understanding what the Orrery is …or what it might be.

I’m keen to explore different types of watchfulness relating to cycling journeys, especially those that aren’t served by the sort of live-tracking tools currently in use. Get in touch if you have a story you’d like to share.

Links for things mentioned in the audio:
The blog accompanying Hannah’s development of Equations for a Moving Body
Emily’s blog post about her ascent of Mount Ventoux
Kajsa and Tina’s video diary of the record attempt







Sketch from Pedalling Ideas event by Phil Dean (@PHILDEAN1963 on Twitter)

Sketch from Pedalling Ideas event by Phil Dean (@PHILDEAN1963 on Twitter)



I’ve been in this city for less than three weeks, and already I’m wrapping myself in the comfort of habit: where I eat; how I get from place to place; my daily routine.

As a result, I’ve been trying to mix things up a bit. It’s amazing how much difference just crossing the road at a different intersection makes. If instead of walking along E 52nd on the Southern side and turning left down Lexington before crossing at 51st to enter the subway, I cross at 52nd and walk down the opposite side of Lexington, suddenly a view of the Chrysler building is revealed.

The joint second tallest building in the city, and I had no idea it was there until I changed my habit by a few tens of metres.

Total bizarre wonderfulness

I’ve always struggled with the “hacker” terminology, finding it quite limiting and a hurdle to explaining what hackspaces/hackerspaces are about to the various people I find myself having to explain what hackspaces/hackerspaces are about to. However, I’ve long been a fan of how Noisebridge presents itself. This extract from their wiki:

Noisebridge is a space for sharing, creation, collaboration, research, development, mentoring, and of course, learning. Noisebridge is also more than a physical space, it’s a community with roots extending around the world. […] We make stuff. So can you.

The definition is in terms of the verbs, not the tools that are used to realise the projects.

I’ve just come across this short introductory video to Noisebridge which I also find presses a lot of my buttons – loving the emphasis on creativity of all sorts: expressed in the space via the craft area, the darkroom, the kitchen, the gas cylinders in the background as Mitch talks, and the massive library! Check out the video below:

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

Note the importance of community. We always took this as our starting point for fizzPOP, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to get a cohesive group together last time. As you can probably tell, I would absolutely love it if Birmingham could support a Noisebridge equivalent, but ultimately it’s down to the community as to what happens.

Head on over to this recent thread on the fizzPOP discussion group where it seems momentum is gathering around fizzPOP 2.0. If you want to contribute, now would be a good time to do so.

People in; slightly different people out

Museums as experience machines

So far my 2010 has been very focussed on schools and learning as I first spent a week responding to the second wave of Creative Partnership calls for this academic year and then attending interviews as a result.

Roughly half of the interviews I am invited to involve having to deliver a short activity (10-20 minutes) to a small group of the children. Considering my whole approach to projects is based on collaboration and a particular process aimed at responding to each individual context, it’s quite strange to find myself being judged on solo delivery of something workshoppy to a group I’ve not had any previous contact with!

I’d like to think that with my cross-disciplinary background one of my main selling points is that with pupil-led projects I’m pretty well equipped to be able to bring in practical skills that relate to wherever we end up. This too makes it tricky to decide on just one activity to represent me, because I’m not working from a starting point of offering a particular medium in response to a brief. Again all about the process.

Anyhoo, irony of the situation aside, these activities can be very interesting in their own right.

On Monday I was in a school that was looking for someone to help facilitate Year 5 (9-10 years old) in designing and making their “Museum of Water”. I was really interested in this call because of the way it had been presented as very pupil-led and also because, through my work with pervasive games and hackerspaces, I’ve been involved in various conversations coming from museum professionals that resonate strongly with those of schools. We all want meaningful interactions.

15 minutes isn’t really enough time for introductions and then anything much in the way of making, so I decided to aim for something much more feasible …like a paradigm shift!

I wanted the school to see their museum-to-be not as a collection of objects, or of documentation of learning objectives, but as a process. People go into the museum and the museum has some sort of effect on them such that the people leaving the museum are slightly different to when they went in. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I started the session in my favourite manner – by getting things wrong.

Hi, my name’s Nikki and I do all sorts of creative stuff. I’m here because I saw your advert for someone to help you make a Museum of Water.

Well, I thought that was really very easy, so I just went ahead and made it for you. [places 2 litre lemonade bottle partially filled with water on table]

Can I have my £3000, please?


Oh, hang on!

[Places bottle on top of cardboard box pedestal]

[Silence accompanied by glances]

What’s wrong? Can I have my money please?

From this starting point, we were able to have a conversation where the pupils explained to me that, even if I labelled the water, just to have a bottle of water on display wasn’t good enough – they wanted a museum that was interactive and taught people interesting things. They weren’t very impressed with my offering at all.

My next move was to invite everyone down to the other end of the room where I had cleared some floorspace. Within the context of what they had just told me, I introduced the idea that I wanted them to think of their museum as an experience machine. I wasn’t interested in what was inside it right now, but I wanted to think of who went in, and what we wanted them to be like when they left.

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Two of the children lay down on some large pieces of paper and struck appropriate poses whilst we drew around them. First of all we gathered around the outgoing visitor and noted and sketched our thoughts about what we wanted people to be doing and feeling after visiting our museum. I was really impressed at the contributions made in what I think was less than 5 minutes.

At one point I announced I was going to write down the obvious and added “happy”. This triggered a conversation about whether we would ever want people to leave the museum feeling sad. Yes they said: there were some very serious things relating to the topic of water and they might want people to be moved by these. When I asked for an example, one boy said that sometimes people drown in water. We agreed it would be important to teach people how to be safe.

With very little time left, we quickly added some thoughts to the picture of the incoming visitor. These were very illuminating in terms of how they perceived museums. Or how they thought museums were perceived – anyway, a very stark difference to the very positive picture they had painted in the previous two activities!

And that was the end of the session ..or it was supposed to be: it took a bit of effort to get the children to stop adding to the picture!

A few pupils helped me take photos of the drawings before I departed (I left the originals with the school – along with the bottle of water, for which I kindly waived the £3000 fee). Below is a slideshow of some of the images…

They’ve set themselves some very high standards in light of what appears to be a somewhat challenging target audience – I hope they can realise them.

A selected chronology of thoughts on people, space and the things in between


In the final of my three years of doing Art and Design at A-level, I found my groove working with installations. I remember a hut I constructed on and around the railings at the top of the stairs to the department office, where you had to weave yourself through small openings before clambering into a small chamber with a computer running a sort of hyper-linked labyrinth of loosely associated words and images.

Another vivid memory is of being hidden behind a curtain in a blacked-out teaching hut, waiting for the right moment to connect the wires to the car battery and start the projection screen rotating.

An outdoor piece involved the construction and installation of periscopes around the college campus, revealing new views over roofs and around corners. Nice moments of interaction with people at either end.


I’ve recently come to think of the pervasive games work I do – and the way that I do it, and the why that I do it – as being an expanded mode of installation art. The key concerns around affecting perception of space are still there, just I’m now planning around a much more complex and dynamic system. More variables. More risk. More interesting?


Through involvement with the fizzPOP hackerspace, I’ve been thinking about more traditional formats of installation again, this time using sensors to make the spaces responsive to the people within them.

A new year’s project is going to involve using a violin to ‘play’ graphics via movement on a macro and micro scale, but in my mind’s eye I can also see some of Atsuo Okamoto‘s stone carvings theramin’d up in a dark barn somewhere. A solitary experience. You interacting with the mass of the stone without touching it.


Orchestra Platform by Pete Ashton on Flickr

'Orchestra Platform' by Pete Ashton on Flickr

Last night I went to see took part in Birmingham Opera Company‘s production of Othello. It was marvellous and impressive in so many different ways (Pete’s index of reviews) but the thing that really struck me was the way in which, in a space that was empty bar for the orchestra’s platform, the audience was moved around to effectively create different sets and scenes. From being penned in shoulder-to-shoulder with a few other hundred people looking up at the actors above through to sitting against the walls watching Desdemona across a vacuum of red carpet.

The way so many of us were were all steered so effectively by cues visual, audible and physical was masterful. There’s something here that fits in with the thread of installation thinkings. Massively multi-player installation perhaps?

Othello from urban_loiterer on Flickr

'Othello' from urban_loiterer on Flickr

Othello from urban_loiterer on Flickr

'Othello' from urban_loiterer on Flickr

Uncertain Eastside presentation for Performance Fictions symposium

Sadie Plant invited me to contribute to her presentation on ‘psychogeography and the city’ as part of the Performance Fictions symposium held at the Electric Cinema yesterday.

‘Performance Fictions’ is the fourth event in art-writing-research network created by researchers from BCU, Goldsmiths, Reading University and University of the Arts London. Article Press, BCU, will publish the papers and contributions from the various events in Spring 2010, to be distributed by Central Books. The volumes will constitute series one of Article Press’s art-writing-research publications.

After Sadie explored Birmingham’s historical rootlessness and uncertainty of place – its location at and function as, a junction – I gave a 10-minute presentation about the Uncertain Eastside work in progress. Below is a transcript with images.


When I graduated from BIAD about 3 years ago, it was to emerge into a lot of talk about plans for a brand new cultural quarter covering a chunk of one side of the city. I was concerned and confused by the apparent desire to suddenly plonk a fully-formed artist-led space into position amongst the warehouses.



My response was to wipe the streets of the designated area free of their existing names. And to add one.

The politics of regeneration is beyond the scope of today’s presentation, and I have little patience for it anyway, but I want to take the opportunity to use this image to show you how closely the borders of the City Council’s Eastside regeneration area are linked to the major traffic routes in and around the city.

In green, as we go up the left hand side is the ring road, going up, just out of shot to the roundabout where it meets the A38 on its way to spaghetti junction. Coming down via Corporation Street, the pedestrian routes of Hight Street and the Bullring area, and the across Digbeth Deritend back to the ring road. The criss-cross of roads and pathways are again being used to define parts of Birmingham.

In 2006 this was mostly all unknown territory to me. By 2009 it was still mostly unknown territory, but now with small incursions around Digbeth and Curzon Street. When I decided I wanted to return to some of the questions raised by the area’s regeneration, it was apparent that my first step should not to be to research it in an academic manner, and subject myself to all the spin, but to get out there and experience it directly.

Bench on roundabout on Coventry Road

Bench on roundabout on Coventry Road

Construction site with sort-of graffiti

Construction site with sort-of graffiti

Greasy spoon internet café

Greasy spoon internet café

Shops and bus stops under the railway lines

Shops and bus stops under the railway lines



Subway rambler

Subway rambler

I’ve spent the last month and a half repeatedly walking around the perimeter that defines Eastside, paying attention to how these spaces are being used at different times and by different groups of people. I’ve also been wrestling with how I might fit into the picture.

I wanted to document the process of walking this line, so on each 90-minute circuit I took with me 2 satnav GPS devices that I have programmed to log my position once every second. Rather than doing a straight-forward trace of my journey though, I was interested to see how the cityscape affected my position as seen by the machines.

GPS drawing from two laps around Eastside

GPS drawing from two laps around Eastside

Detail from previous slide

Detail from previous slide

Each of these lines joins my position as determined by the machine in my left hand to my position as determined by the machine in my right hand. The longer the line, the more they disagree.

Despite what we are led to believe, GPS is actually pretty flaky. All sorts of things can affect its accuracy. There may be 3 rather than 8 satellites overhead at that particular time; my body may be blocking the satellite signal; and large buildings and areas of concrete can bounce the signals around. All these affect the perceived position.

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Errors and glitches

Looking at the results from any one walk I can see a whole host of different glitches and errors. To be honest, they’re what make GPS an interesting thing for me to work with.

Composite drawing from 6 laps around Eastside

Composite drawing from 6 laps around Eastside

Through overlaying the traces of several laps, however, you can start to filter out the anomalies … or at least start to read which of them are caused by the fabric of the city-scape.

Here’s the cumulative result after 6 laps…

Stood near the base of the Rotunda

Stood near the base of the Rotunda

This detail is from the area at the base of the rotunda, at the edge of the Bullring shopping centre. The long, haphazard lines caused by the tall, closely-packed buildings.

Ring road

Ring road

By contrast, the comparatively open space of the ring road gives shorter, much more uniform lines, occasionally buffeted around by a large warehouse building.

Ashted Circus

Ashted Circus

Here is Ashted Circus, where I momentarily loose contact with the satellite signals as I go through some underpasses.

The Other Side

The Other Side

Whilst walking with the satnavs I was given glimpses of other sorts of errors – biases towards the car, roads I couldn’t cross, residential areas the other side of seemingly impassable road boundaries.

Beautiful scary

Beautiful scary

Sunken oases inside the rings of roundabouts – beautiful but also possibly harbouring great danger.

However, due to restraints in using the GPS logging, I could only observe these in passing. I had to keep moving at a steady pace. I could speculate, but never investigate.

Participants document a building in Digbeth

Participants document a building in Digbeth

So, last Sunday I invited others to join me for an investigative walk. Nominally following the route around the edge of Eastside, but allowed the freedom to drift from it to explore things that caught our eye.











We walked, we explored, we looked at stuff, we touched stuff, we climbed on stuff and we dared to cross to the in-between places.

Blog post on Digbeth is Good, http://digbeth.org/2009/10/a-walk-around-uncertain-eastside/

Blog post on Digbeth is Good, http://digbeth.org/2009/10/a-walk-around-uncertain-eastside/

Pete Ashtons blog post, http://peteashton.com/2009/10/eastside_is_uncertain/

Pete Ashton's blog post, http://peteashton.com/2009/10/eastside_is_uncertain/

People are now starting to post their photos from the day online, and their accounts of what happened are starting to appear on blogs where the stories and viewpoints overlap. We also exchanged stories between us whilst we were walking along the route. In situ. It’s my feeling that we needed the 3.5 hours of walking to get to the point where we could gather around the ‘map’ at the pub and have an in-depth conversation about what it signifies. I find this happens a lot – that you need the group performance before you can get to the meaty discussion.

I guess that in terms of this symposium, we’re talking more about performed narratives, rather than performed fictions per se, but I’m expecting the edges to blur somewhat, especially as we move into the phase where we compile the accompanying publication of thus chapter of the project.

After unfurling some of the stories, we will gather some of the images taken by the participants into a publication with the aim of making a document to record this face of Birmingham before it reinvents itself again.


From here, Sadie speculated that this sort of drift along a route defined by roadways, exploring the details, progress logged by satnav devices, might be psychogeography 21st Century style.

Huffing Duck

A few weeks ago, one @kitlarks (who I don’t know) appeared on Twitter, apparently having been blackmailed to sign up in order to receive a huffing duck from, I believe, @EmmaGx (who I don’t know either).


I don’t really know what the deal was, but it appeared to involve signing up, a certain number of posts and an uploaded avatar in exchange for a drawing of a huffing duck. This seemed to me to not be a Twitter-like way of approaching things.

huffing duck market dynamic

Anyway, one thing led to another (not exactly crowd-sourcing, I know, but an interesting exercise nonetheless) and a collaborative huffing duck was incrementally produced in a vaguely exquisite corpse-esque manner. Ok, not exactly exquisite corpse either…

crowd-sourced huffing duck

You can see the animations of the cumulative contributions here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

As you can see, the internet badgers ate the huffing duck during the process of adding the head at stage 8. Unfortunate, but if you look carefully there’s a nice after-image huffing duck in glorious Technicolor burned onto your retina, and that’s perhaps as it should be.

I’m not sure what happens to the huffing duck next: whether it fades to white, or whether it will be resurrected to continue its evolution. In the meantime however, this post is by way of setting aside a small slice of cyberspace to say that a huffing duck happened and it happened because of these people (alphabetical order):

@alexhughes, @benjibrum, @graphiquillan, @haling, @lauraehall, @mookstudios, @soba_girl.

A very big thank you to all involved!

We are the Interstitials


This post has been brewing for several days now and has just been tipped into existence by the latest post on Museum 2.0 about deliberately unsustainable business models. Other kindling includes: this comment from 2007 where I suggest some metallurgical references for renaming structural holes; Pete Aston’s tweet about being comfortable with the idea that he’ll be doing something completely different come 2015; and the job titles I variously use to describe to people what I do which include “transdisciplinary independent person”, “investigator” and “interstitial”.

We are the Interstitials is a metaphor based on principles of interstitial solutes in metals.

We are the Interstitials:

red interstitial in a grey matrix

We are smaller than the structures around us. We inhabit the gaps the host matrix cannot occupy itself.
Our small size gives us speed and responsiveness and though the sites we may occupy are ultimately determined by the host matrix, we are mobile and select which of the available positions we inhabit.

Our host is rigid; bound to the other similar entities around it in predictable patterns. We are independent; we may cluster around locations or other interstitials, but our interactions shift as required. We frequently move on, jumping between adjacent sites. There’s no problem, it’s just how we are.

Our host may regard us as defects, but though our numbers are small, our effects are wide-reaching and can drastically change the properties of the matrix we operate within. The energy-fields around us, induced by our presence, often make it easy for us to interact with other types of perceived ‘defect’, often impeding their motion or changing the way they in turn affect the matrix.

We are small, we are mobile, we affect. We are the interstitials.

Copyright and permissions:

General blog contents released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa license. Artworks and other projects copyright Nicola Pugh 2003-2024, all rights reserved.
If in doubt, ask.
The theme used on this WordPress-powered site started off life as Modern Clix, by Rodrigo Galindez.

RSS Feed.